Dairy sector adjusts to butter debate fallout lessons

Now that the rhetoric around butter hardness has settled down, farmers look to managing without palm fat supplements, while research continues

As the Buttergate social furor and ensuing questions around transparency settles into a dull roar, where does dairy go from here? 

“What this conversation is about is – what is the way forward in light of some of the challenges thrown at us over the past few weeks?” said David Wiens, Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) vice-president.

Why it matters: In a society rife with a ‘cancel culture’ mentality, the dairy industry and agriculture struggle with how decades-old farm practices fit into social contracts. 

The DFC has launched an expert working-group with academic representatives from dairy science, veterinary medicine, animal nutrition, sustainability, food science, consumer awareness and education, human health and nutrition to cover all the angles, said Wiens.

“We heard consumers and we’re going to look into this in much more detail,” said Wiens. “A really good starting point, always, is to look at the science of it. Once we have that, we will have the reports to work off of.”

The working group will aggregate existing research and academic literature for a broad spectrum of concerns, including butter characteristics and consistency, feed composition, human and animal health, environmental impacts of dairy supplements in a domestic and global context and health and the nutritional effect on humans and animals. 

“I consider it important to have consumer confidence in the findings of the group,” he said. “If they have doubts about the work of the group, that would take away from it. So we want to be careful that that’s not going to happen.”

Wiens said results from the working group over the next few months would shape the DFC’s next steps and identify research gaps. New research over the next few years should address the gaps.

Until then, the DFC has requested dairy producers eliminate the use of palmitic acid supplements, which has sparked numerous nutritionist-producer conversations around effective and safe energy-boosting alternatives for energy-deficient early lactating cows.

“It’s something we have to look into and be very careful because (it’s a) very complex question, it’s not like one-plus-one equals-two,” said Dr. Rachel Gervais, a professor with the Department of Animal Studies, Université Laval. “There are many parameters in these equations.”

Removing palmitic acid supplements from a dairy farmer toolbox is similar to removing a flat head screwdriver, said Gervais. They may find a way to unscrew the screw, but it will likely take longer, be more complicated and sometimes won’t be possible at all.

Palmitic acid is natural, and synthesized in cows and humans, said Gervais. The majority of a PA supplement goes to filling a cow’s energy deficit with one to two per cent impacting PA levels in milk. 

“If you change the diet of the cow and don’t put palm oil in or anything,” she said, “you could see an increase or a decrease in palmitic acid that is even bigger than what you would see if you feed the cow with palmitic acid.” 

Gervais can’t say definitively if PA supplement use contributes to harder butter but research shows seasonal impacts, forage, nutrient balances within the feed or the introduction of a new ingredient show a larger effect on PA content than the supplement.

 

The reaction of consumers to the news that some farmers use a byproduct of palm oil production, and its potential effect on butter, has been surprising to many in the industry. photo: YelenaYemchuk/iStock/Getty Images

Athlete cows need energy, not just salad

“She’s an Olympic athlete. You won’t help her with salad. She needs energy,” Gervais said. “You need something that is going to be good for her and not harmful for the rumen.”

The big challenge is finding an alternative that is more sustainable, said Gervais, because raising more cows is not environmentally friendly. 

Palmitic acid is naturally occurring and is found everywhere, including in forages and cereals fed to cows and humans. PA enriched supplements remain inert in the rumen of an early lactating cow and provide easily accessible energy.  

Whether PA supplements remain in use or not, further research is required to assess the potential efficacy, safety and sustainability of alternative energy boosting supplements and how their use impacts dairy farm sustainability and environmental footprint.  

The rapid call for producers to stop using the PA supplement was a strategic error that reinforced the perception the product is dangerous, said Mike von Massow, food economist and associate professor in the Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics, University of Guelph. 

“Maybe that was required under the crisis circumstances we were in, but I would have preferred to say, there may be an issue with butter, we don’t know if it’s connected to PA but let’s have a discussion about PA,” he said.

“It has moved the discussion away from the consistency of butter just to the issue of palmitic.” 

Von Massow estimates half of all Canadians know nothing about #Buttergate and the ensuing kerfuffle over PA supplements, which opens a window of opportunity for a rational discussion around the who, when and whys of supplement use in the dairy herd and its impact on human health.

“We got caught, in this circumstance, in a crisis, and we’re starting from a different point than if we were just having a regular discussion,” said von Massow. 

Consumers employ a certain amount of willful ignorance about how an animal-based product arrives on their plate or in their glass, but there is growing consumer interest in animal welfare and management protocols on the farm. 

The agricultural industry should proactively provide information and a new level of transparency, which is easily accessible rather than be caught on their back foot when a crisis arises, said von Massow. 

What’s the consumer ‘line in the sand’?

If the industry addressed the ins-and-outs of PA supplement use in dairy cows – including highlighting its safety, usage, impacts on milk and milk products and whether it was transparently certified as sustainably sourced — it would likely have de-escalated the crisis into a rational discussion, von Massow said, 

“The industry could have said ‘Look, we’ve been open and honest about this all along (instead of) ‘ Look, we weren’t hiding it, we just didn’t say anything’,” he said. “In 99.9 per cent of the cases consumers are going to go ‘Oh, I get that and I’m okay with (it)’.”

With PA supplements, the remaining vulnerability lies in whether consumers would endorse social license to use certified sustainable palm oil products. 

“It’s good (the DFC) are not just looking at the science. Science can give us insight, it can’t make decisions about what we should do,” said von Massow. “In the end, the consumer may state, ‘No, that’s our line in the sand.’”

At that point, the industry has a choice: change or lose the consumer, he said. 

Von Massow said while farmers rail against the fear of consumers dictating how they farm, they failed to recognize consumers share the same concerns about farmers dictating how they should eat. 

“What we didn’t do is say, ‘yeah, we believe you that something’s happening (in butter), let us work to find that out’,” he said. “I think we missed that step as an industry, and frankly, I was guilty of it too.”

By acknowledging consumer concerns and by providing transparency, the industry will ultimately build stronger relationships with consumers and have more opportunities to shape the discussion. 

This openness is effective in combatting rhetoric from animal rights activists because, von Massow said, activists will have those conversations regardless of whether the industry engages. 

“We need to (engage) before we get to a crisis so we have more control of the narrative as we move through it,” he said. “We might not win every argument, but if we’re not in the discussion, we won’t win any of them.” 

About the author

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Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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